Islamic Studies Islam in the Philippines
Vivienne S. M. Angeles
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0102


Arab and Gujarati traders and missionaries introduced Islam to the Philippines in the 14th century. Overtime, Islam became a dominant religion and, in the southern Philippines the Sultan of Sulu carried the title “The Shadow of God on Earth.” Sultans also claimed to implement Islamic law and retained the services of Middle Eastern Muslims as qadis (judges). Spain, which colonized the Philippines in the 16th century, was not successful in subduing the Muslims or in converting them to Christianity. The three centuries of Spanish rule was beset by intermittent warfare in the South that combined political, economic, and spiritual motives. These, plus Spain’s negative portrayals of Islam and Muslims influenced negative perceptions of each other among Muslims and Christians. The Spanish used the term Moro (Moors) in a derogatory way but in recent times, the word has been imbued with positive meanings by Philippine Muslims to convey courage, bravery, and self-determination. When the United States took over the Philippines from Spain, it did not impose a religion but maintained Spanish emphasis on religion as identity markers and created the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes for Muslims and indigenous non-Christian tribes. This “othering” which was based on religion, persisted in the post-independence period and affected Muslim–Christian relations. In addition, government neglect and marginalization of the Muslim South resulted in economic disparities between Muslim and Christian areas. These issues provided the impetus for Muslim-led rebellions from 1969 onward. Islam was previously identified with ethnic tribes in southern provinces but the war in the mid-1970s between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and government forces drove many Muslims to seek refuge in other parts of the country. The final peace agreement between the MNLF and the government in 1996 has not ended the conflict. Other groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) also engaged in armed conflict in pursuit of the creation of an independent Islamic state. The government, in an effort to end the war, launched various programs to help Muslims and promoted the idea that Islam is part of the national heritage. These, in effect, helped provide a climate conducive to Islamic resurgence. In the 1970s the Philippine government launched a labor migration program sending Filipino workers to the Middle East, especially to Saudi Arabia. Many Christian Filipinos have converted to Islam while in Saudi Arabia and on return to the Philippines have kept the new religion. Today, Islam is still a minority religion in a country where the population is 85 percent Catholic. However, there are now Muslim communities in every province, mosques have become part of the landscape in Christian areas, Islamic schools have been established in several regions, and the number of converts to Islam is rising. Aside from the earlier differences based on ethnicity, the Philippine ummah is now a more diverse community that includes Sunnis, Shias, Jami at Tablighis, and Ahmadiyyas, and a distinction between “born Muslims” and converts is maintained.

General Overviews

There are very few general works on Islam in the Philippines, and there is an obvious lack of more recent work that presents an overview of Islam in the country. Since Islam was linked with ethnicity, information on Islam and Muslims comes from a variety of sources that either focuses on specific tribes or general surveys of tribes in the Philippines. Gowing 1964 is one of the first attempts at bringing together in one volume the dispersed information on Islam and Muslims in the Philippines. Islam was tied up with ethnicity in the Philippines so studies like Isidro and Saber 1968 and Orosa 1931 present religion as an aspect of tribal life rather than as the main focus of study. Several edited volumes originating from different disciplines include religious, political, and social aspects of Muslim tribes including Gowing 1978, Madale 1981, and Jocano 1983. These materials are dated, but in the absence of recent general works, and in spite of the overlaps in the coverage, they are useful introductions to Islam as practiced in the Philippines for nonspecialists. In the last thirty years, much of the literature on Islam and Muslims focuses on Muslim movements and the continuing negotiations between the government and various Muslim groups. This focus has led to the neglect of other features of Philippine Islam and Muslim life and lack of academic writing on Islam as a religion in the Philippines.

  • Gowing, Peter G. Mosque and Moro: A Study of Muslims in the Philippines. Manila: Philippine Federation of Christian Churches, 1964.

    An early attempt at consolidating information on Muslims and Islam in the Philippines. Includes geographic distribution of Muslim tribes, religious beliefs, and social and political organization.

  • Gowing, Peter G. Muslim Filipinos: Heritage and Horizon. Quezon City, Philippines: New Day, 1978.

    A comprehensive introduction to Islam and Muslims in the Philippines. The chapters deal with a profile of Philippine Muslims, history of Islam and Islamization of Philippines, Muslim responses to colonialism, religious beliefs and practices, life ways and mores, art, and the secessionist movement. Good for a general introduction.

  • Isidro, Antonio, and Mamitua Saber, eds. Muslim Philippines. Marawi City, Philippines: Mindanao State University, 1968.

    Introduction to history, culture, and religion of Muslims; general descriptions of Muslim tribes from secondary sources.

  • Jocano, F. Landa, ed. Filipino Muslims: Their Social Institutions and Cultural Achievements. Quezon City: Asian Center, University of the Philippines, 1983.

    Various topics including history of Islamization, the Sulu sultanate, Muslim tribes, colonialism and Muslims, women and art. Quality of essays is variable.

  • Madale, Nagasura, ed. Muslim Filipinos: A Book of Readings. Quezon City, Philippines: Alemar-Phoenix, 1981.

    Collection of essays on various topics regarding Muslim Filipinos. List of recommended readings is useful. Other articles refer to specific tribes such as the Maguindanaoan and Maranaos.

  • Orosa, Sixto Y. The Sulu Archipelago and Its People. Yonkers-on-the-Hudson, NY: World Book, 1931.

    Provides a wealth of ethnographic information on the people of Sulu. Three chapters of the book deal with the beliefs and practices of the Mohammedans [sic] with detailed descriptions of life cycle and temporal rituals including the celebration of Maulod (Muhammad’s birthday). Photographs included. Originally published in 1923. Text available online.

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